10:43 am

Error Type 1: Pitch and stress

Pitch and stress are two quite distinctive areas in English but not in Chinese. In Chinese pronunciation (Mandarin), there is no such thing as word stress. Pitch, on the other hand, plays a greater role in Chinese than in English. It actually changes the meaning of the word.

The pitch movement is referred to as "tone", and so there are 4 different tones in Chinese pronunciation. Each tone gives a certain meaning to a word. Just to help you to understand this, IMAGINE that the sound [no] is an English word and Chinese word. In English, whether I change my voice pitch or not, the meaning of [no] will never change. [no] will never mean [table] or [life] or [pen] or [suitcase], it will mean [no] as in [negative].

Now, saying [no] in English in different tones could show the others how I feel but it will always mean NO (unless it's sarcasm). Now in Chinese , depending on the changes I make to the pitch while saying [no], the actual meaning of the sound [no] totally changes, so [no] may actually mean [table] or [life] or [pen] or [suitcase].

Error Type 1 is probably one of the most important source of error for Chinese learners. Teachers MUST do plenty of stress exercises and explain that pitch in Chinese has a different role in English.

In English:Consider how you (a native speaker) would say [no] when answering the following 4 questions in 4 different scenarios:
1-Do you like horror movies? No. (Neutral)
2-Are you mad at me because I offered your girlfriend a drink? No (but you ARE actually mad at him for doing that)
3-So you're coming to my wedding on Saturday right? No. No??? (surprised)
4-Give me your money, give me your money now! No. (resistant, challenging and firm)

Error Type 2: Connected speech

Chinese pronunciation comes across a bit choppy. The boundaries between the syllables are more audible (it would be easier to hear the beginning and ending of the Chinese syllables). While in English, it would be harder to recognize the start and end of words and syllables.

English almost sounds like the flowing water, if that makes any sense to you. Chinese sounds like the turning wheels of a train on the railroad track. So why does Chinese sound so? Well, one of the main reasons is that, in Mandarin, syllables never end with consonants except /n/ or /ŋ/ (and /r/ in Beijing), while in Cantonese, syllables could end with /n/,/ŋ/, /m/, /k/, /p/ or /t/. The quality of /k/, /p/ and /t/ in Cantonese is different from that in English though.

So in both Mandarin and Cantonese, Chinese English learners wouldn't connect the consonants at the end with the vowels at the beginning of syllables. For example, [he's out], in English it would sound like [he zout], but a Chinese speaker would find that very difficult because pronouncing /z/ at the end of a syllable is very unusual. So if you train the students to say it as [he zout], they will get it.

Consider the following examples:
[change it]
[get out]
[come in]
[made of]
[dig up]

Error Type 3: Words ending with consonants

As I mentioned above, in Mandarin, the syllables or words never end with consonants, except with /n/ or /ŋ/. As a result, Chinese learners either omit (delete) the final consonant or add an extra sound (probably a schwa sound) after it, which makes it very difficult for  English speakers to follow.

Although most consonants will be difficult to pronounce at word endings for Chinese, voiced consonants are the most challenging ones. By voiced consonants, I mean the consonants that need vibration at the throat like /b/ /d/ /z/ /g/ /v/ /ʒ/ /dʒ/ and /ð/.

In addition to omitting those consonants or adding an extra sound after them, Chinese also de-voice them, which means that the /b/ becomes /p/, the /d/ /t/, the /z/ /s/, the /g/ /k/, the /v/ /f/, the /dʒ/ /tʃ/ and the /ʒ/ /ʃ/.

Words ending with /v/: dive; love; crave
Words ending with /g/: morgue; rogue; bag
Words ending with /d/: hide; food; rude
Words ending with /z/: bears; toys; booze
Words ending with /b/: bulb; curb; globe
Words ending with /ð/: bathe; writhe; with
Words ending with /dʒ/: fridge; grudge; wage
Words ending with /ʒ/: Raj; beige; change

Error Type 4: Consonants clusters

As for most Asian learners of English, Chinese find consonants clusters extremely challenging as not a single Chinese language allows consonants cluster, so teachers should expect to see plenty of omissions, additions and substitutions occurring in words with [pr] [pl] [tr] [kr] [kl] [fl] [ks] [sk] [st] [ts] combinations.

Teachers need to spend a considerable amount of time with the students to practice these sounds as they affect intelligibility dramatically.

/pr/: problem; practice; pronunciation; present
/pl/: place; plough; plane; please; plumber.
/tr/: try; train; trophy; trail; tricky; trace; trim.
/kr/: crane; crab; crime; Kristen; cram; cradle.
/kl/: climb; claim; cloud; clear; Clayton; cluster.
/fl/: fly; fleece; Fletcher; fluke; flirt; fluster.
/ks/: lacks; Max; spikes; takes; seeks, ticks.
/sk/: ask; task; husky; rascal; mascot; risky.
/st/: must; rusty; festival; Crystal; pastor; best
/ts/: rights; mates; fights; boots; seats; hits

Error Type 5: Vowels reduction & the schwa sound

Since the stress concept is unfamiliar to Chinese learners, they, as most learners of English, have problems understanding the idea of vowels reduction and using the schwa sound.

For Chinese, letters (pinyin, the modern Chinese alphabet) should be pronounced as they appear. We all know in English it doesn't work like that. The schwa sound is the most common sound in the English language, the longer the words are, the more likely it is that they will contain one or more schwa sounds.

Also, the vowels in most of the conjunctions, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, modals, determiners and articles is very often reduced/changed to a schwa sound. On the other hand, due to stress, some vowels are prolonged (made longer). The schwa sound can be spelled as: [a] [e] [o] [u] and [y].

/ə/: about; taken; pencil; eloquent; supply; sibyl

Error Type 6: /r/

Since the English /r/ doesn't exist in most Chinese dialects, it is a big problem for most Chinese learners of English who often replace it with /l/ and sometimes /w/.

Teachers are recommended to focus on the /r/ at the beginning and end of the words and not worry much about the one in the middle. The reason why /r/ is very important in the beginning is that it could change the meaning when changed to /l/. [rice] will become [lice] and [rust] [lust].

At the end of the word is also important because without it the students couldn't connect the /r/ with vowel-starting words such as [you're on] [we're up] etc.

/r/ (beginning and middle): right; race; really;
problem; traffic; frog etc.
/r/ (end): car; meter; prefer; bear; shower etc.

Error Type 7: /θ/ and /ð/

These two sounds simply do not exist in Chinese pronunciation. The students can pronounce them quite easily when instructed but they remain difficult to control during a conversation.  /ð/, a voiced consonant, is a high frequency sound as it is in words like [the] [this] [that] [these] [those] [there] etc.

Chinese learners should be told that oftentimes the pronunciation of /ð/ changes in the natural spoken English, depending on the sounds after it, notably after /n/ /s/ /z/ /t/ and /d/.

While /θ/ is a bit more complex in my opinion, it too gets affected by certain consonants that either succeed or precede it as in [months], where we don't actually have to pronounce [th], or [first thing], where we end up saying [firs thing] as it's almost impossible to pronounce the /t/ before [th] etc.

/θ/: thin; wrath; moth; thigh; Ruth; truth etc./ð/: weather; loathe; then; writhe; scythe; rather etc

Error Type 8: /v/

Another consonant that the Chinese languages don't have. Unlike the voiced and voiceless [th], /v/ is difficult for Chinese learners to correct as they don't seem to be able to hold the upper lip still while bringing their lower lip into contact with the upper teeth.

Depending on the native Chinese dialect of the learners, they could either replace it with /b/ or /w/ sound.

Love; have; drive; living; Victor; vest; van; valley etc.

Error Type 9: Confusing /l/ for /n/

As with Vietnamese learners of English, Chinese also confuse /l/ for /n/ as the English /l/ has no equivalent in Chinese.

Teachers need to help the learners drop the nasality when attempting to produce that sound as well as free the sides of the tongue while keeping contact between the tip and the alveolar ridge.

However, when /l/ occurs at the end, it just sounds like [o] as Chinese learners move their lips forward. Students need to be told to keep their lips back and to focus only on the tongue movement.

/l/ (initial): light; lace; lead; laugh; learn
/l/ (medial): fault; rolling; falling; swollen; really
/l/ (final): recall; fall; roll; available; identical

Error Type 10: Confusing between /iː/ and /ɪ/

In English, the length and tenseness of the vowel change the meaning of the word, as in [feast] and [fist], but not in Chinese pronunciation.

As I already mentioned in error 1, pitch or tone is one big factor in changing the meaning of a certain syllable. So while to our ears [deep] and [dip] sound quite different, to Chinese learners' ears, they don't. Minimal pairs exercises can be quite helpful and dialogues targeting those two vowels are particularly useful.

Remember, the problem is not that they don't have those sounds, but that they don't find much difference between them.

/i:/ Need; read; treat; believe; meat; wheel; receipt etc./ɪ/: Knit; rid; tit; live; mitt; will; sit etc.

Error Type 11: Confusing between /e/ and /æ/

As I already explained in error 10, there are several vowels that Chinese learners are confused about. /e/ and /æ/ is one of the minimal pairs that Chinese students struggle with. They can't hear much different between [bet] and [bat], [set] and [sat] etc.

It would be easier to hear the difference between [bed] and [bad] because of the voiced consonants after the vowels. The /æ/ in [bad] is longer than that in [bat] because of the /d/.

So teachers are advised to choose minimal words with voiced consonants to train the learners' ears to distinguish between /e/ and /æ/.

/e/: bed; led; men; leg /æ/: bad; lad; man; lag

Error Type 12: Confusing between /uː/ and /ʊ/

Like with /i:/ and /ɪ/ and /e/ and /æ/, Chinese learners are confused with /uː/ and /ʊ/.

Words like [shoed] and [should] sound pretty much the same, so do [fool] and [full] or [pool] and [pull].

food; pool; fool; Luke; shooed
foot; pull; full; look; should

Error Type 13: Confusing between /æ/ or /e/ for /eɪ/

Chinese learners may pronounce [mate] as [met] and [bait] as [bet]. Similarly, they may confuse [west] as [waist] and [kept] as [caped].

In Pinyin (Chinese written in Alphabets), the [e] vowel sounds like the English /ɜ/ + /ə/, imagine the word [work] in [British]. In Pinyin, [ei] sounds exactly like /eɪ/ in English.

My point is that there is no vowels equivalent to the English /e/ that can stand alone in Chinese pronunciation.

/æ/: fat; mat; hat; man; can't; past
/e/: Fed; met; head; men; Kent; pest
/eɪ:/ fate; mate; hate; main; caned; paste

Error Type 14: /m/ at the end of the words

AnotherIn most Chinese dialects, consonant /m/ never occurs at the end of the syllable/word, so Chinese learners never close their lips at the end of words like [arm] [rhyme] [same] [cam] etc.

As a result of this, the students don't link the /m/ with the vowels after it as in [I'm eating] [I'm off] etc.

/m/ (final): mime; dime; came; fame; room; column

Error Type 15: Confusing/oʊ/ for /ɔː/

Vowel /oʊ/ does exist in Chinese, yet the students are still confused between /oʊ/ and /ɔː/ due to spelling.

Teachers just need to raise the students' awareness of those two sound revealing some common spelling patterns of the two vowels.

/oʊ/: Wrote; owl; boat; coat; mode; road; so
/ɔː/: all; bought (UK); caught (UK); fall (UK); saw (UK)